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Joseph Kaiser as Tamino [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
06 Feb 2011

Die Zauberflöte, Covent Garden

Premiered in 2003, and aired again in 2005 and 2008, this current revival of David McVicar’s Die Zauberflöte brings many ‘old hands’ back together to re-visit oft-frequented roles on familiar ground.

W. A. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Tamino: Joseph Kaiser; Pamina: Kate Royal; Papageno: Christopher Maltman; Queen of the Night: Jessica Pratt; Sarastro: Franz-Josef Selig; Monostatos: Peter Hoare; Speaker of the Temple: Matthew Best; Papagena: Anna Devin; First Lady: Elisabeth Meister; Second Lady: Kai Rüütel; Tird Lady: Gaynor Keeble. David McVicar, Director. Colin Davis, Conductor. John Macfarlane, Designer. Paule Constable, Lighting designer. Leah Hausmann, Movement director. Lee Blakeley, Revival director. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Tuesday 1 February 2011.

Above: Joseph Kaiser as Tamino

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera House


This production’s first and only Sarastro, Franz-Josef Selig, steps back into the High Priest’s hallowed shoes; several esteemed soloists from the 2008 run return - Christopher Maltman reprising his confident, mischievous Papageno, and Kate Royal once again presenting a dignified and elegant Pamina. With the original conductor, Sir Colin Davis, at the helm, a smooth sailing should be guaranteed; however, there were a few unexpected wobbles on this opening night, and if the ship didn’t hit the rocks it certainly lost its moorings on occasion.

John Macfarlane’s designs are still strikingly sumptuous: effortless transitions between lavish tableaux, packed with period details and evocatively lit by Paule Constable, transport one — as if gliding aloft a magic carpet — to other worlds. Die Zauberflöte is a compendium of styles, forms and moods: Masonic mysticism rubs shoulders with pantomime farce; erudite Enlightenment philosophy sits alongside an earthy tale of human endeavour and love. And McVicar and his designer, John Macfarlane, skilfully conjure and combine these domains: scientific astronomical apparatus whisk us back to an empirical eighteenth-century, the sweeping glare of an outsized crescent moon casts a supernatural spell. So, it is perhaps all the more surprising that a few ‘false notes’ are allowed to creep in.

ZAUBER-1024_0508-MALTMAN&RO.gifChristopher Maltman as Papageno and Kate Royal as Pamina

Maltman’s Papageno is warm-hearted and exuberant. Although perhaps not exploiting the full colour range and power of his increasingly varied palette and rich baritonal resonance, Maltman revelled in the moments of comedic flippancy and fun; admittedly this was sometimes at the expense of rhythmic precision, and he occasionally lost touch with the pit — thereby unintentionally emphasising the bird-catcher’s anarchic streak.

As Sarastro, Franz-Josef Selig, struck an imposing physical figure: regal, poised and self-possessed. His diction was impressive (alone among the cast, his is singing in his native tongue), and although he took a little while to settle down in, particularly in the middle range, his performance was commanding and secure.

Kate Royal’s soprano is strong, sure and gorgeous in tone, but while gracious and composed, I feel that physically and vocally she lacks some of the child-like naivety which is integral to the role of Pamina. There was no doubting the beauty and grace of her vocal line. Her duet with Papageno, ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’, was achingly touching, but was equalled in affecting loveliness by ‘Ach, ich fühl's’. Royal’s strength and control were not quite matched by her Tamino, Joseph Kaiser, and this was particularly noticeable in the lover’s ‘reunion scene’. Kaiser’s portrayal was rather one-dimensional but he compensated for some occasionally wooden acting with a flexible, light voice aptly conveying the youthful optimism and bravery of the idealistic hero.

ZAUBER-1024_0148-(C)MIKE-HO.gifFrom Left To Right: Elisabeth Meister as First Lady, Jessica Pratt as Queen of the Night, Kai Rüütel as Second Lady and at the back, Gaynor Keeble as Third Lady

As the Queen of the Night, Jessica Pratt, making her role and house debut, had all the notes, and hit them cleanly. While her top notes were warm and true, without a hint of stridency or loss of power, her lower register projected less well and she did not really convey the menace of the would-be murderer. A general lack of dramatic and musical subtlety, as in the recitative to her first aria, ‘O zittre nicht’, diluted the impact of the Queen’s vengeful terrorising.

British tenor, Peter Hoare, was an eccentric Monostatos, who in this production is made to bear the bulk of the burden for creating comedy and lightness. A caricature villain, he is less dangerous racial threat, the embodiment of ‘otherness’, and more a harmless, if ridiculous, be-wigged dandy, the epitome of vanity. Matthew Best was an authoritative Speaker, imperiously directing Tamino to the ‘right path’, effectively establishing a moment of dramatic gravitas at the end of Act 1.

Several Jette Parker Young Artists were given opportunities to shine. The First and Second Ladies, Elisabeth Meister and Kai Rüütel respectively, were joined by the more experienced Gaynor Keeble to form a well-blended trio. Their stage-craft, however, seemed rather undirected, particularly in the opening scene where, given that the hand-manipulated, puppet serpent (just one of many of McVicar’s overt debts to eighteenth-century theatrical paraphernalia), though wonderfully charming, hardly chills the blood. Thus, the black-clad Ladies need to generate an air of peril and intimidation; but, rhythmic co-ordination was a little wayward and there was a lack of projection. As Papagena, JPYA Anna Devin — attractive both vocally and physically — should have been an irresistible ‘catch’ for Papageno. But, inexplicably, she was presented not as a beauty disguised as a beggar, but in attire more fitting for a bordello boudoir — no wonder Papageno looked away in disgust.

The chorus was rather ragged and some of the responsibility for the poor ensemble must rest with Sir Colin Davis, a supremely experienced Mozartian, but who nevertheless failed to pace this production effectively. After a wonderfully stately start to the overture — where the warm weight, focused intonation and glossy sheen of the horns powerfully established the mood of Masonic majesty — the Allegro failed to catch fire, and the spark of conflict and contrast which should drive the opera forward was never quite ignited. (Moreover, the orb-carrying extras wandering rather purposelessly through the stalls hardly helped matters.) Davis chooses to ignore the period performance specialists’ preference for pace and nimbleness; but while this should not prevent an effective dramatic momentum being achieved, some of the tempi were overly ponderous — particularly the Priests’ March and Sarastro’s ‘O Isis and Osiris’ at the opening of Act 2 which was decidedly sluggish. Indeed, even Selig lost contact with the pit, a rare moment of discomposure. Davis was however sensitive to the soloists, controlling dynamics and texture to provide appropriate accompanying support, especially in the case of the Three Boys (Jacob Ramsay-Patel, Harry Stanton and Harry Manton) who shone through — and stayed in time …

Overall this was an enjoyable, if slightly unsatisfactory, opening night. Perhaps insufficient time was allotted to this well-known revival; if so, things should improve as the run progresses.

[Die Zauberflöte continues in repertory until Saturday 19 February.]

Claire Seymour

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